Writing about Clinton recently in Vanity Fair, Robert Sam Anson added to my suspicion by suggesting that “Clinton types” in the Clark campaign had been vigorously pushing similar rumors.
I called Lehane himself, who, having backed the wrong team, is now running his own political PR firm in San Francisco. I asked him where he’d first heard the rumors about Kerry and me. He blamed political reporters. I asked him if he had used the rumors to try to help Clark. He denied it. “There are just so many media outlets out there now, Alex, that these kind of baseless rumors can easily get turned into stories,” he said smoothly, and then the phone went dead.
I called him right back, but he didn’t answer. I called again less than an hour later, and this time his outgoing message had been changed to, “Hi, you’ve reached Chris. I’m traveling and won’t be able to retrieve my voice mail.” I wondered how he was able to run a PR company without retrieving voice mail.
Our conversation was unsettling, but it was hardly conclusive. I tried to understand the chronology of events, and then discovered that Drudge’s “exclusive” wasn’t even an exclusive. On February 6, six days before Drudge, an obscure political Website called Watchblog.com ran a commentary by someone calling himself Son of Liberty. “Rumor has it that John Kerry is going to be outed by Time magazine next week for having an affair with a 20-year-old woman who remains unknown,” Son had confidently predicted.
Watchblog was the creation of Cameron Barrett, who—as it happened—went on to work for the Clark campaign. I enlisted some reporting help from Robert Kolker, a more seasoned political journalist who works for this magazine. He reached Barrett by instant message.
Without even being asked, Barrett declared that Son’s story had nothing to do with himself, Lehane, or Clark. A day later, Son himself e-mailed, saying that he was willing to be unmasked as Stephen VanDyke, a 25-year-old computer programmer in Atlanta. Claiming to be inspired by James Thomson Callender, the original American muckraker who chronicled the scandals of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, VanDyke says now that he was merely trying to make a name for himself by posting the rumor. “What I tried to break,” he explains, “was that the rumor did exist. I didn’t know whether it was true or not.
I know now it’s not.
“It looks as though someone may have been just passing out disinformation,” he continued. “And I may have become part of that cycle.” Kolker asked him if he knew why I had been named. “She may have just been convenient,” VanDyke suggested. “Someone who ran off to, where did she go, Kenya? It made an excellent opportunity for someone to finger-point at her.”
It was becoming clearer: No single person had to have engineered this. First came a rumor about Kerry, then a small-time blogger wrote about it, and his posting was read by journalists. They started looking into it, a detail that was picked up by Drudge—who, post-Monica, is taken seriously by other sites like Wonkette, which no political reporter can ignore. I was getting a better education in 21st-century reporting than I had gotten at Columbia J-school.
Drudge’s initial posting on February 12 claimed that ABC News, Time, The Hill, and the Washington Post were all working on stories about a Kerry intern. “It had been looked into,” confirms George Stephanopoulos, who now works for ABC News and who, as a Clinton aide, had to handle the brouhaha over Clinton’s affair with Gennifer Flowers. “But according to our investigative people, there was nothing behind it.”
And what about Time? “I thought it was absurd,” says political columnist Joe Klein. “There are a whole bunch of things we’re looking into all the time. And there’s an important word here: Drudge. The world really has changed since September 11; the time is past when we’d waste two years on late-night pizza deliveries.”
Still, Drudge had been right about Monica, and no news outlet wanted to be caught without the story if it turned out to be true. I discovered they all had teams assembling background on me to run if the story stood up.
Of course, I still remained unsure how it was that I got dragged into this thing. My relationship with Peter had put me close to the senator, and I certainly hadn’t kept it a secret that I had been excited to meet and talk to Kerry. The more people I talked to, the more one supposed source kept coming up, a woman whom Drudge had called my “close friend.” I won’t mention her name here, but she had worked for a Republican lobbyist—Bill Jarrell, who runs a firm called Washington Strategies, gives money to Bush, and had been a top aide to Tom DeLay. I called her immediately to ask her if she had been telling people I’d had an affair with Kerry. “I may have said you knew him,” she said, sounding as if she were choosing her words with great care. “I may have said you had dinner with him. But I never said you had an affair!”
Then another reporter also said she’d told him I had slept with Kerry. I couldn’t believe one of my closest friends would tell such a thing—we went all the way back to tenth grade. I had even asked her to be a bridesmaid. She denied it again, then softened her position. “I may have told Bill that you knew Kerry. Look, I was once with you when you phoned Kerry’s office and then he called you right back. And I thought, How amazing, and I got excited and I told friends about it.” She started to cry. “I’m very, very sorry,” she sobbed. “If all this leads back to me, it wasn’t intentional.”
I called Jarrell and asked him what he thought. “Come on Alex,” he said. “Who else could it be?”
Oddly, of all the stories written, the one that upset me most appeared in the New York Observer by Alexandra Wolfe, daughter of the novelist Tom Wolfe. Cobbling together information from the Web, she said I looked like Monica and had poor taste in movies, and compared me to Paris Hilton. I wept.